The unfolding military and humanitarian crisis in Libya has given filmmaker Rania Ajami a chance she wasn’t sure she would ever have — a second life for her feature documentary debut, “Qaddafi’s Female Bodyguards: Shadows of a Leader.”
In spring 2003, the New York-based filmmaker traveled to Libya to lense Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s elite femme bodyguards. Ajami, a New York U. graduate film student at the time, said her doc began as a school assignment.
“When I was little my uncle told me about how he had seen Qaddafi arrive in Kuwait, with these women protecting him,” Ajami said. “He said that he wasn’t sure if he was going to be attacked or seduced.
“When I heard that story it instantly conjured up all sorts of images and questions. Are they Amazonians? Are they Charlie’s Angels? They also go against our stereotypical perspective of an oppressed Muslim woman. So I thought the argument would be an interesting one to explore.”
Of Lebanese origin, Ajami, who was born in the U.S. and grew up in London, gained access to the then-embargoed country by writing to Libyan authorities over two years.
“I stressed that I was just a student doing a sociological, anthropological study about these women and I didn’t have a political agenda.”
Eventually, Ajami and her two-man crew were invited into the country. She spent just under a month filming in Libya.
While the filmmaker admits to initially entering the country with a “very narrow view” of how she wanted to pic to play out, the unprecedented access to the female bodyguards added layers she never expected.
“I went there thinking and hoping to do something quite sensational. The reality was much more about women’s rights and how these women deal with femininity, how they move through the urban world. There was so much more there than your headline news,” she said.
Doc played at only a few festivals and was never released in the U.S. But as the conflict between forces loyal to Qaddafi and rebels took over worldwide news coverage, “Shadows of a Leader” gained the attention of distributors.
“I’ve been contacted by a lot of people in the last few weeks interested in releasing the film,” said Ajami, who unveiled her debut fiction feature, “Asylum Seekers” in 2009. “I think people are trying to understand and get insight into the man who is Qaddafi, the regime and how it functions.”
While Ajami admits to feeling “awkward” about releasing the film during the “horrifying” upheaval in Libya, she feels her doc deserves an audience.
“I just don’t know if Libya was on anyone’s radar before that,” she said. “I think the interesting question now is what will happen to these women? You don’t see women fighting (on TV). You only see young men. So even though I saw all of these women learning how to use weapons, when push comes to shove and you see the reality on the ground, they’re not there.”